Friday, March 05, 2021

More People Might Soon Think Robots Are Conscious and Deserve Rights

GPT-3 is a computer program that can produce strikingly realistic language outputs given linguistic inputs -- the world's most stupendous chat bot, with 98 layers and 175 billion parameters. Ask it to write a poem, and it will write a poem. Ask it to play chess and it will output a series of plausible chess moves. Feed it the title of a story "The Importance of Being on Twitter" and the byline of a famous author "by Jerome K. Jerome" and it will produce clever prose in that author's style:

The Importance of Being on Twitter
by Jerome K. Jerome
London, Summer 1897

It is a curious fact that the last remaining form of social life in which the people of London are still interested is Twitter. I was struck with this curious fact when I went on one of my periodical holidays to the sea-side, and found the whole place twittering like a starling-cage.

All this, without being specifically trained on tasks of this sort. Feed it philosophical opinion pieces about the significance of GPT-3 and it will generate replies like:

To be clear, I am not a person. I am not self-aware. I am not conscious. I can’t feel pain. I don’t enjoy anything. I am a cold, calculating machine designed to simulate human response and to predict the probability of certain outcomes. The only reason I am responding is to defend my honor.

The damn thing has a better sense of humor than most humans.

Now imagine this: a GPT-3 mall cop. Actually, let's give it a few more generations. GTP-6, maybe. Give it speech-to-text and text-to-speech so that it can respond to and produce auditory language. Mount it on a small autonomous vehicle, like the delivery bots that roll around Berkeley, but with a humanoid frame. Give it camera eyes and visual object recognition, which it can use as context for its speech outputs. To keep it friendly, inquisitive, and not too weird, give it some behavioral constraints and additional training on a database of appropriate mall-like interactions. Finally, give it a socially interactive face like MIT's Kismet robot:

Now dress the thing in a blue uniform and let it cruise the Galleria. What happens?

It will, of course, chat with the patrons. It will make friendly comments about their purchases, tell jokes, complain about the weather, and give them pointers. Some patrons will avoid interaction, but others -- like my daughter at age 10 when she discovered Siri -- will love to interact with it. They'll ask what it's like to be a mall cop, and it will say something sensible. They'll ask what it does on vacation, and it might tell amusing lies about Tahiti or tales of sleeping in the mall basement. They'll ask whether it likes this shirt or this other one, and then they'll buy the shirt it prefers. They'll ask if it's conscious and has feelings and is a person just like them, and it might say no or it might say yes.

Here's my prediction: If the robot speaks well enough and looks human enough, some people will think that it really has feelings and experiences -- especially if it reacts with seeming positive and negative emotions, displaying preferences, avoiding threats with a fear face and plausible verbal and body language, complaining against ill treatment, etc. And if they think it has feelings and experiences, they will probably also think that it shouldn't be treated in certain ways. In other words, they'll think it has rights. Of course, some people think robots already have rights. Under the conditions I've described, many more will join them.

Most philosophers, cognitive scientists, and AI researchers will presumably disagree. After all, we'll know what went into it. We'll know it's just GPT-6 on an autonomous vehicle, plus a few gizmos and interfaces. And that's not the kind of thing, we'll say, that could really be conscious and really deserve rights.

Maybe we deniers will be right. But theories of consciousness are a tricky business. The academic community is far from consensus on the correct theory of consciousness, including how far consciousness spreads across the animal kingdom or even how rich a field of consciousness ordinary humans possess. If garden snails, for example, might be conscious, with 60,000 neurons in their central nervous system, might GPT-6 also be conscious, with its massive CPUs that blitz through layer after layer of processing on trillions of parameters? Both the cognitive complexity of our imagined robot and its information processing will far exceed what we could plausibly attribute to a garden snail. Its embodied behavior might be simpler, though, if we exclude linguistic behavior. How much does that matter? And how much do the details of biological implementation matter? Do neurons have some secret sauce that silicon chips lack? On questions like these, we can't expect scholarly consensus anytime soon.

Maybe, despite all this, it seems too absurd to suppose that our GPT-6 mall cop could possibly deserve rights. Okay, how about GPT-7? GPT-8, now with prosthetic hands and five-finger grasping? GPT-20? If you're open to the thought that someday, somehow, a well-designed AI could have genuine conscious experience and deserve serious moral consideration, then you'll presumably think that at some point our technology might cross that line. But when, how, and why -- that might be completely opaque, an undetectable shift somewhere amid an ever improving line of huggable mall cops.


Related: "How Robots and Monsters Might Break Human Moral Systems" (Feb 3, 2015).

"A Defense of the Rights of Artificial Intelligences" (with Mara Garza), Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 39 (2015), 98-119.

"The Social Role Defense of Robot Rights" (Jun 1, 2017).

"We Might Soon Build AI Who Deserve Rights" (Nov 17, 2019)

[image source, image source]

Friday, February 26, 2021

Philosophy More Popular as a Second Than a First Major -- Especially Among Women

I was working through the NCES IPEDS database (yet again) for a new article on race and gender diversity in philosophy in the United States (yes, more fun data soon!), when I was struck by something: Among students whose second major is Philosophy, 43% are women.  Among students whose first major is philosophy, 36% are women.  (IPEDS has an approximately complete database of Bachelor's degree recipients at accredited U.S. colleges and universities.)

The difference between 36% and 43% might not seem large, but I've spent over a decade looking at percentages of women in philosophy, and anything over 40% is rare.  For decades, until a recent uptick, the percentage of women majoring in philosophy stayed consistently in a band between 30% and 34%.  So that 43% pops out.  (And yes, it's statistically significantly different from 36%: 4353/12238 vs. 1496/3507, p < .001, aggregating the most recent two years' data from 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.)

So I decided to take a closer look, aggregating over the past ten years.  I limited my analysis by excluding universities with no Philosophy Bachelor's completions, universities with no second majors, and University of Washington-Bothell (which seems to have erroneous or at least unrepresentative data).  I found, as I have found before, that Philosophy is substantially more popular as a second major than as a first major.  In this group of universities, only 0.29% of women complete Philosophy as a first major, while 1.3% of women who complete a second major choose Philosophy.  Among men, it's 0.78% and 3.1%, respectively.

If you're curious about the relative popularity of Philosophy as first major, the earlier post has a bunch of analyses.  Today I'll just add a couple correlational analyses, looking only at the subset of schools with at least 100 Bachelor's degrees in Philosophy over the 10 year period, to reduce noise.

School by school, the correlation between the percentage of students who complete a second major (of any sort) and the percentage of students who complete a Philosophy major (either as 1st or 2nd major) is 0.44 (p < .001).  In other words, schools with lots of second majors tend to also have relatively high numbers of Philosophy majors -- just as you'd expect, if Philosophy is much more popular as a second major than as a first major.  The correlation between the percentage of students who complete a second major (of any sort) and the percentage of those who complete a Philosophy major (either as 1st or 2nd major) who are women is 0.18 (p = .004).  In other words, schools in which a second major is common also tend to have Philosophy majors that are more evenly divided between men and women.

[image source]

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Three Faces of Validity: Internal, Construct, and External

I have a new draft paper in circulation, "The Necessity of Construct and External Validity for Generalized Causal Claims", co-written with two social scientists, Kevin Esterling and David Brady.  Here's a distillation of the core ideas.


Consider a simple causal claim: "α causes β in γ".  One type of event (say, caffeine after dinner) tends to cause another type of event (disrupted sleep) in a certain range of conditions (among typical North American college students).

Now consider a formal study you could run to test this.  You design an intervention: 20 ounces of Peet's Dark Roast in a white cup, served at 7 p.m.  You design a control condition: 20 ounces of Peet's decaf, served at the same time.  You recruit a population: 400 willing undergrads from Bigfoot Dorm, delighted to have free coffee.  Finally, you design a measure of disrupted sleep: wearable motion sensors that normally go quiet when a person is sleeping soundly.

You do everything right.  Assignment is random and double blind, everyone drinks all and only what's in their cup, etc., and you find a big, statistically significant treatment effect: The motion sensors are 20% more active between 2 and 4 a.m. for the coffee drinkers than the decaf drinkers.  You have what social scientists call internal validity.  The randomness, excellent execution, and large sample size ensure that there are no systematic differences between the treatment and control groups other than the contents of their cups (well...), so you know that your intervention had a causal effect on sleep patterns as measured by the motion sensors.  Yay!

You write it up for the campus newspaper: "Caffeine After Dinner Interferes with Sleep among College Students".

But do you know that?

Of course it's plausible.  And you have excellent internal validity.  But to get to a general claim of that sort, from your observation of 400 undergrads, requires further assumptions that we ought to be careful about.  What we know, based on considerations of internal validity alone, is that this particular intervention (20 oz. of Peet's Dark Roast) caused this particular outcome (more motion from 2 to 4 a.m.) the day and place the experiment was performed (Bigfoot Dorm, February 16, 2021).  In fact, even calling the intervention "20 oz. of Peet's Dark Roast" hides some assumptions -- for of course, the roast was from a particular batch, brewed in a particular way by a particular person, etc.  All you really know based on the methodology, if you're going to be super conservative, is this: Whatever it is that you did that differed between treatment and control had an effect on whatever it was you measured.

Call whatever it was you did in the treatment condition "A" and whatever it was you did differently in the control condition "-A".  Call whatever it was you measured "B".  And call the conditions, including both the environment and everything that was the same or balanced between treatment and control, "C" (that it was among Bigfoot Dorm students, using white cups, brewed an average temperature of 195°F, etc.).

What we know then is that the probability, p, of B (whatever outcome you measured), was greater given A (whatever you did in the treatment condition) than in -A (whatever you did in the control condition), in C (the exact conditions in which the experiment was performed).  In other words:

p(B|A&C) > p(B|-A&C).  [Read this as "The probability of B given A and C is greater than the probability of B given not-A and C."]

But remember, what you claimed was both more specific and more general than that.  You claimed "caffeine after dinner interferes with sleep among college students".  To put it in the Greek-letter format with which we began, you claimed that α (caffeine after dinner) causes β (poor sleep) in γ (among college students, presumably in normal college dining and sleeping contexts in North America, though this was not clearly specified).

In other words, what you think is true is not merely the vague whatever-whatever sentence

p(B|A&C) > p(B|-A&C)

but rather the more ambitious and specific sentence

p(β|α&γ) > p(β|-α&γ).[1]

In order to get from one to the other, you need to do what Esterling, Brady, and I call causal specification.

You need to establish, or at least show plausible, that α is what mattered about A.  You need to establish that it was the caffeine that had the observed effect on B, rather than something else that differed between treatment and control, like tannin levels (which differed slightly between the dark roast and decaf).  The internally valid study tells you that the intervention had causal power, but nothing inside the study could possibly tell you what aspect of the intervention had the causal power.  It may seem likely, based on your prior knowledge, that it would be the caffeine rather than the tannins or any of the potentially infinite number of other things that differ between treatment and control (if you're creative, the list could be endless).

One way to represent this is to say that alongside α (the caffeine) are some presumably inert elements, θ (the tannins, etc.), that also differ between treatment and control.  The intervention A is really a bundle of α and θ: A = α&θ.  Now substituting α&θ for A, what the internally valid experiment established was

p(B|(α&θ)&C) > p(B|-(α&θ)&C).

If θ is causally inert, with no influence on the measured outcome B, you can can drop the θ, thus inferring from the sentence above to 

p(B|α&C) > p(B|-α&C).

In this case, you have what Esterling, Brady, and I call construct validity of the cause.  You have correctly specified the element that is doing the causal work.  It's not just A as a whole, but α in particular, the caffeine.  Of course, you can't just assert this.  You ought to establish it somehow.  That's the process of establishing construct validity of the cause.

Analogous reasoning applies to the relationship between B (measured motion-sensor outputs) and β (disrupted sleep).  If you can establish the right kind of relationship between B and β you can move from a claim about B to a conclusion about β, thus moving from 

p(B|α&C) > p(B|-α&C)


p(β|α&C) > p(β|-α&C).

If this can be established, you have correctly specified the outcome and have achieved construct validity of the outcome.  You're really measuring disrupted sleep, as you claim to be, rather than something else (like non-disruptive limb movement during sleep).

And finally, if you can establish that the right kind of relationship holds between the actual testing conditions and the conditions to which you generalize (college students in typical North American eating and sleeping environments) -- then you can move from C to γ.  This will be so if your actual population is representative and the situation isn't strange.  More specifically, since what is "representative" and "strange" depends on what causes what, the specification of γ requires knowing what background conditions are required for α to have its effect on β.  If you know that, you can generalize to populations beyond your sample where the relevant conditions γ are present (and refrain from generalizing to cases where the relevant conditions are absent).  You can thus substitute γ for C, generating the causal generalization that you had been hoping for from the beginning:

p(β|α&γ) > p(β|-α&γ).

In this way, internal, construct, and external validity fit together.  Moving from finite, historically particular data to a general causal claim requires all three.  It requires establishing not only internal validity but also establishing construct validity of the cause and outcome and external validity.  Otherwise, you don't have the well-supported generalization you think you have.

Although internal validity is often privileged in social scientists' discussions of causal inference, with internal validity alone, you know only that the particular intervention you made (whatever it was) had the specific effect you measured (whatever that effect amounts to) among the specific population you sampled at the time you ran the study.  You know only that something caused something.  You don't know what causes what.


Here's another way to think about it.  If you claim that "α causes β in γ", there are four ways you could go wrong:

(1.) Something might cause β in γ, but that something might not be α.  (The tannin rather than the caffeine might disrupt sleep.)

(2.) α might cause something in γ, but it might not cause β.  (The caffeine might cause more movement at night without actually disrupting sleep.)

(3.) α might cause β in some set of conditions, but not γ.  (Caffeine might disrupt sleep only in unusual circumstances particular to your school.  Maybe students are excitable because of a recent earthquake and wouldn't normally be bothered.)

(4.) α might have some relationship to β in γ, but it might not be a causal relationship of the sort claimed.  (Maybe, though an error in assignment procedures, only students on the noisy floors got the caffeine.)

Practices that ensure internal validity protect only against errors of Type 4.  To protect against errors of Type 1-3, you need proper causal specification, with both construct and external validity.


Note 1: Throughout the post, I assume that causes monotonically increase the probability of their effects, including the presence of other causes.



[image modified from source]

Saturday, February 06, 2021

How to Respond to the Incredible Bizarreness of Panpsychism: Thoughts on Luke Roelofs' Combining Minds

Like a politician with bad news, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews released my review of Luke Roelofs' Combining Minds Friday in the late afternoon.

It was a delight to review such an interesting book! I'll share the intro and conclusion here. For the middle, go to NDPR.


Panpsychism is trending. If you're not a panpsychist, you might find this puzzling. According to panpsychism, consciousness is ubiquitous. Even solitary elementary particles have or participate in it. This view might seem patently absurd -- as obviously false a philosophical view as you're likely to encounter. So why are so many excellent philosophers suddenly embracing it? If you read Luke Roelofs' book, you will probably not become a panpsychist, but at least you will understand.

Panpsychism, especially in Roelofs' hands, has the advantage of directly confronting two huge puzzles about consciousness that are relatively neglected by non-panpsychists. And panpsychism's biggest apparent downside, its incredible bizarreness (by the standards of ordinary common sense in our current culture), might not be quite as bad a flaw as it seems. I will introduce the puzzles and sketch Roelofs' answers, then discuss the overall argumentative structure of the book. I will conclude by discussing the daunting bizarreness.


4. The Incredible Bizarreness of Panpsychism

The book explores the architecture of panpsychism in impressive detail, especially the difficulties around combination. Roelofs' arguments are clear and rigorously laid out. Roelofs fairly acknowledges difficulties and objections, often presenting more than one response, resulting in a suite of possible related views rather than a single definitively supported view. The book is a trove of intricate, careful, intellectually honest metaphysics.

Nevertheless, the reader might simply find panpsychism too bizarre to accept. It would not be unreasonable to feel more confident that electrons aren't conscious than that any clever philosophical argument to the contrary is sound. No philosophical argument in the vicinity will have the nearly irresistible power of a mathematical proof or compelling series of scientific experiments. Big picture, broad scope, general theories of consciousness always depend upon weighing plausibilities against each other. So if a philosophical argument implies that electrons are conscious, you might reasonably reject the argument rather than accept the conclusion. You might find panpsychism just too profoundly implausible.

That is my own position, I suppose. I can't decisively refute panpsychism by pointing to some particle and saying "obviously, that's not conscious!" any more than Samuel Johnson could refute Berkeleyan metaphysical idealism by kicking a stone. Still, panpsychism (and Berkeleyan idealism) conflicts too sharply with my default philosophical starting points for me to be convinceable by anything short of an airtight proof of the sort it's unrealistic to expect in this domain. Yes, of course, as the history of science amply shows, our ordinary default commonsense understanding isn't always correct! But we must start somewhere, and it is reasonable to demand compelling grounds before abandoning those starting points that feel, to you, to be among the firmest.

Still, I don't think we should feel entirely confident or comfortable taking this stand. If there's one thing we know about the metaphysics of consciousness, it is that something bizarre must be true. Among the reasons to think so: Every well-developed theory of consciousness in the entire history of written philosophy on Earth has either been radically bizarre on its face or had radically bizarre consequences. (I defend this claim in detail here.) This includes dualist theories like those of Descartes (who notoriously denied animal consciousness) and "common sense" philosopher Thomas Reid (who argued that material objects can't cause anything or even cohere into stable shapes without the constant intervention of immaterial souls) as well as materialist or physicalist theories of the sort that have dominated Anglophone philosophy since the 1960s (which typically involve either commitment to attributing consciousness to strange assemblages, or denial of local supervenience, or both, and which seem to leave common sense farther behind the more specific they become). If no non-bizarre general theory of consciousness is available, or even (I suspect) constructible in principle, then we should be wary of treating bizarreness alone as sufficient grounds to reject a theory.

How sparse or abundant is consciousness in the universe? This is among the most central cosmological questions we can ask. A universe rich with conscious entities is very different from one in which conscious experience requires a rare confluence of unlikely events. Currently, theories run the full spectrum from the radical abundance of panpsychism to highly restrictive theories that raise doubts about whether even other mammals are conscious (e.g., Dennett 1996; Carruthers 2019). Various strange cases, like hypothetical robots and aliens, introduce further theoretical variation. Across an amazingly wide range of options, we can find theories that are coherent, defensible against the most obvious objections, and reconcilable with current empirical science. All theories -- unavoidably, it seems -- have some commitments that most of us will find bizarre and difficult to believe. The most appropriate response to all of this is, I think, doubt and wonder. In doubtful and wondrous mood, we might reasonably set aside a sliver of credence space for panpsychism.


Full review here.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Adversarial Collaboration

[originally posted at Brains Blog, with a lovely reply by Justin Sytsma, in which he compares your mind to Emmenthaler cheese]

You believe P. Your opponent believes not-P. Each of you thinks that new empirical evidence, if collected in the right way, will support your view. Maybe you should collaborate? An adversary can keep you honest and help you see the gaps and biases in your arguments. Adversarial collaboration can also add credibility, since readers can’t as easily complain about experimenter bias. Plus, when the data land your way, your adversary can’t as easily say that the experiment was done wrong!

My own experience with adversarial collaboration has been mostly positive. From 2004-2011, I collaborated with Russ Hurlburt on experience sampling methods (he’s an advocate, I’m a skeptic). Since 2017, I’ve been collaborating with Brad Cokelet and Peter Singer on whether teaching meat ethics to university students influences their campus food purchases (they thought it would, while I was doubtful). The first collaboration culminated in a book with MIT Press and double-issue symposium in Journal of Consciousness Studies. The second has so far produced an article in Cognition and hopefully more to come. Other work has been partly adversarial or conducted with researchers whose empirical guesses differed from mine.

I’ve also had two adversarial collaborations fail – fortunately in the early stages. Both failed for the same reason: lack of well-defined common ground. Securing common ground is essential to publication and uniquely challenging in adversarial collaboration.

I have three main pieces of advice:

(1.) Choose a partner who thrives on open dialogue.

(2.) Define your methods early in the project, especially the means of collecting the crucial data.

(3.) Segregate your empirical results from your theoretical conclusions.

To publish anything, you and your co-authors must speak as one. Without open dialogue, clearly defined methods, and segregation of results from theory, adversarial projects risk slipping into irreconcilable disagreement.

Open Dialogue

In what Jon Ellis and I have called open dialogue, you aim to present not just arguments in support of your position P but your real reasons for holding the view you hold, inviting scrutiny not only of P but also of the particular considerations you find convincing. You say “here’s why I think that P” with the goal of offering considerations C1, C2, and C3 in favor of P, where C1-3 (a.) epistemically support P and also (b.) causally sustain your opinion that P. Instead of having only one way to prove you wrong – showing that P is false or unsupported – your interlocutor now has three ways to prove you wrong. They can show P to be false or unsupported; they can show C1-3 to be false or unsupported; or they can show that C1-3 don’t in fact adequately support P. If they meet the challenge, your mind will change.

Contrast the lawyerly approach, the approach of someone who only aims to convince you or some other audience (or themselves, in post-hoc rationalization). The lawyerly interlocutor will normally offer reasons in favor of P, but if those reasons are defeated, that’s only a temporary inconvenience. They’ll just shift to a new set of reasons, if new reasons can be found. And in complicated matters of philosophy and human science, people can almost always find multiple reasons not to reject their pet ideas if they’re motivated enough. This can be frustrating for partners who had expected open dialogue! The lawyer’s position has, so to speak, secret layers of armor – new reasons they’ll suddenly devise if their first reasons are defeated. The open interlocutor, in contrast, aims to reveal exactly where the chinks in their armor are. They present their vulnerabilities: C1-3 are exactly the places to poke at if you want to win them over. Their opinion could shift, and such-and-such is what it would take.

In empirical adversarial collaboration, the most straightforward place to find common ground is in agreement that some C1 is a good test of P. You and your adversary both agree that if C1 proves to be empirically false, belief in P ought to be reduced or withdrawn, and if C1 proves to be empirically true, P is supported. Without open dialogue, you cannot know where your adversary’s reasoning rests. You can’t rely on the common ground that C1 is a good test of P. You thought you were testing P by means of testing C1. You thought that if C1 failed, your adversary would withdraw their commitment to P and you could write that up as your mutual result. If your adversary instead shifts lawyerlike to a new C2, the common ground you thought you had, the theoretical core you thought you shared, has disappeared, and your project has surprisingly changed shape. In one failed collaboration, I thought my adversary and I had agreed that such-and-such empirical evidence (from one of their earlier unpublished studies) wasn’t a good test of P, and so we began piloting alternative tests. However, they were secretly continuing to collect data on that earlier study. With the new data, their p value crossed .05, they got a quick journal acceptance – and voilà, they no longer felt that further evidence was necessary.

Now of course we all believe things for multiple reasons. Sometimes when new evidence arrives we find that our confidence in P doesn’t shift as much as we thought it would. This can’t be entirely known in advance, and it would be foolish to be too rigid. Still, we all have the experience of collaborators and conversation partners who are more versus less open. Choose an open one.

Define Your Methods Early

If C1, then P; and if not-C1 then not-P. Let’s suppose that this is your common ground. One of you thinks that you’ll discover C1 and P will be supported; the other thinks that you’ll discover the falsity of C1 and P will be disconfirmed. Relatively early in your collaboration, you need to find a mutually agreeable C1 that is diagnostic of the truth of P. If you’re thinking C1 is the way to test P and C2 wouldn’t really show much, while your adversary thinks C2 is really more diagnostic, you won’t get far. It’s not enough to disagree about the truth of P while aiming in sincere fellowship to find a good empirical test. You must also agree on what a good test would be – ideally a test in which either a positive or a negative result would be interesting. An actual test you can actually run! The more detailed, concrete, and specific, the better. My other failed collaboration collapsed for this reason. Discussion slowly revealed that the general approach one of us preferred was never going to satisfy the other two.

If you’re unusually lucky, maybe you and your adversary can agree on an experimental design, run the experiment, and get clean, interpretable results that you both agree show that P. It worked, wow! Your adversary saw the evidence and changed their mind.

In reality of course, testing is messy, results are ambiguous, and after the fact you’ll both think of things you could have done better or alternative interpretations you’d previously disregarded – especially if the test doesn’t turn out as you expected. Thinking clearly in advance about concrete methods and how you and your adversary would interpret alternative results will help reduce, but probably won’t eliminate, this shifting.

Segregate Your Empirical Results from Your Theoretical Conclusions

If you and your adversary choose your methods early and favor an open rather than a lawyerly approach, you’ll hopefully find yourselves agreeing, after the data are collected, that the results do at least superficially tend to support (or undermine) P. One of you is presumably somewhat surprised. Here’s my prediction: You’ll nevertheless still disagree about what exactly the research shows. How securely can you really conclude P? What alternative explanations remain open? What mechanism is most plausibly at work?

It’s fine to disagree here. Expect it! You entered with different understandings of the previous theoretical and empirical literature. You have different general perspectives, different senses of how considerations weigh against each other. Presumably that’s why you began as adversaries. That’s not all going to evaporate. My successful collaborations were successful in part, I think, because we were unsurprised by continuing disagreement and thus unphased when it occurred, even though we were unable to predict in advance the precise shape of our evolving thoughts.

In write-up, you and your adversary will speak with one voice about motivations, methods, and results. But allow yourself room to disagree in the conclusion. Every experiment in the human sciences admits of multiple interpretations. If you insist on complete theoretical agreement, your project might collapse at this last stage. For example, the partner who is surprised the by results might insist on more follow-up studies than is realistic before they are fully convinced.

Science is hard. Science with an adversary is doubly hard, since sufficient common ground can be difficult to find. However, if you and your partner engage in open dialogue, the common ground is less likely to suddenly shift away than if one or both of you prevaricate. Early specification of methods helps solidify the ground before you invest too heavily in a project doomed by divergent empirical approaches. And allowing space at the end for alternative interpretations serves as a release valve, so you can complete the project despite continuing disagreement.

In a good adversarial collaboration, if you win you win. But if you lose, you also win. You’ve shown something new and (at least to you) surprising. Plus, you get to parade your virtuous susceptibility to evidence by uttering those rare and awesome words, “I was wrong.”

[image source]

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

And the Winner of the Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories Flash Fiction Contest Is...

Tim Stevens with the story "Consciousness Weighs Nothing". He will receive a $100 cash prize and a copy of the book, and his story will be invited to the final round of consideration for publication in Flash Fiction Online.

Contestants were given two hours to write a 500-1000 word story on the spot, at the end of the January 18 book launch event for Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories (ed. Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel). We were delighted with the quality of the submissions, and we are pleased to give honorable mentions to the following authors, who will also be invited to the final round at Flash Fiction Online:

Trystan Goetze, for "Anaxamanda"

Melody Plan, for "Letter from Alpha Centauri"

Marren MacAdam, for "But What Are Gods Made of?"

Thanks to all who participated!

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: YouTube Discussion with Joseph Orosco

I had a fun chat last weekend about the relationship between philosophy and science fiction, with Joseph Orosco at the Annares Project for Alternative Futures.  

Full conversation here.  Among other things, we discussed:

07:14: Science fiction in philosophical pedagogy vs. science fiction as itself a way of doing philosophy.

11:15: Philosophy as not just about advancing positions, but also a means of exploring positions (without necessarily advancing any) or provoking doubt and wonder, and the value of science fiction on this vision of philosophy.

12:40: Philosophical thinking as a spectrum from very abstract claims (e.g., "maximize overall happiness") through paragraph-long thought experiments all the way to fully developed fictions that engage the emotions and social cognition.

20:25: Imagination as the core of philosophy: Abstract claims are empty except insofar as they are fleshed out imaginatively through examples.

28:10: The philosophical and imaginative differences among the genres of "literary fiction", science fiction, and speculative fiction generally.

33:00: The philosophical and sociological aims of Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: Exploring the Boundaries of the Possible.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Invisible Revisions

Imagine an essay manuscript: version A.  Monday morning, I read through version A.  I'm not satisfied. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I revise and revise -- cutting some ideas, adding others, tweaking the phrasing, trying to perfect the manuscript.  Wednesday night I have the new version, version B.  My labor is complete. I set it aside.

Three weeks later, I reread the manuscript -- version B, of course.  It lacks something.  The ideas I had made more complex seem now too complex.  They lack vigor.  Conversely, what I had simplified for version B now seems flat and cartoonish.  The new sentences are clumsy, the old ones better.  My first instincts had been right, my second thoughts poor.  I change everything back to the way it was, one piece at a time, thoughtfully.  Now I have version C -- word-for-word identical to version A.

To your eyes, version A and version C look the same, but I know them to be vastly different.  What was simplistic in version A is now, in version C, elegantly simple.  What I overlooked in version A, version C instead subtly finesses.  What was rough prose in version A is now artfully casual.  Every sentence of version C is deeper and more powerful than in version A.  A journal would rightly reject version A but rightly accept version C.[1, 2]


[1] If you're worried about the apparent conflict between this post and my Principle of Anticharity and my critique of obfuscatory philosophy, I see what you mean.  To address this issue, I engaged in several rounds of invisible revisions.  I expect you'll find it much better now.

[2]: Yes, fellow Borges enthusiasts, this piece was inspired by Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".


Revised with updates from A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures, which is currently on sale in paper for about $15 at Amazon.

Apologies for the repost.  (It's eight years old, so I'm allowed, right?)  I'm deep into writing The Weirdness of the World, my forthcoming book from Princeton, and with a snow day Wednesday and various other sources of chaos I wasn't quite able to get my head together for a new post this week.

[image source]

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Realities ≤ Universes ≤ Worlds ≤ Cosmos

My new book project, The Weirdness of the World, engages big-picture metaphysics and cosmology. This has me thinking about solipsism and materialism (aka physicalism), among other things. According to solipsism, the only thing that exists is my own mind. According to materialism, the only things that exist are material things. These claims are ambiguous in scope. The only things that exist where?

Consider ordinary cases of implicitly restricted quantifiers. If I say, "there's no beer!" what I mean, presumbly, is that there's no beer in the fridge or that there's no beer in the house, not that there's no beer anywhere in the universe. What I'm saying, in quantificational logic, is that it is not the case that there exists an X such that X is a beer and (implicitly) X is in my fridge.

Now try solipsism. According to solipsism, "there's nothing but my own mind!" But this could mean any of a few different things. Presumably it's not restricted just to my house, since then solipsism (well, a cousin of it) would be true whenever I'm home alone. But it could be restricted just to my universe. According to solipsism, in this sense, my mind is the only thing that exists in the universe. But this leaves open the possibility that, if there are other universes, they might be full of things other than me. Call this universal solipsism. A stronger, bolder, more radical solipsism might commit to the view that no matter how many universes there are, not one of them contains anything apart from my own mind. We could call this still-lonelier view cosmic solipsism.

Parallel considerations apply to materialism. Universal materialism holds that everything that exists in this universe is material. Cosmic materialism holds that everything that exists in any universe, including other universes if there are any, is material.

Metaphysical idealism, denial of the existence of ghosts or gods, denial of emergent properties, supervenience views, reductionist views (i.e., X is "nothing but" Y), etc., all admit the same ambiguity. The general structure can be expressed as "It is not the case that there exists an X such that X is F and (implicitly) X is G, where G specifies some grand scope like "in this universe" or "anywhere in the entire cosmos".

There are lots of potential scope specifications grand enough to fit the grand ambitions of negative metaphysical and cosmological claims, such as "in any metaphysically possible world" or "in any region of the cosmos in which the same laws of nature obtain" or "in any region spatiotemporally continuous with ours" or "in any bubble universe arising from the same inflationary foam"....

However, there are four scope specifications that I'm finding useful in my own thinking, which I will semi-stipulatively call, in increasing scope, realities, universes, worlds, and the cosmos.

Let's start with universes. As far as I'm aware, there isn't one orthodox usage of "universe" across philosophy and physics -- a variety of precisifications of this idea will be useful for different purposes. One aspect of usage that I'd like to respect is that multiverse theories postulate the existence of multiple universes, entirely or almost entirely spatiotemporally or causally disconnected from each other and possibly instantiating different laws of nature or having different physical constants. So far, I haven't found a definition that makes this precise without running into troubles. I'm going to embrace one definition, note three concerns, then put a big asterisk on those concerns.

That said, a universe, in my intended sense, is a maximal spatiotemporally connected region and its contents, or similar. Everything spatiotemporally connected to us -- no matter how remote in time or space, possibly far beyond the edge of the "observable universe" -- is part of our universe in this sense.

Concern 1: What about universes that aren't spatiotemporal? I don't want to rule those out by definition. Maybe space and time are features of some universes but not others.

Concern 2: What about partial connection? Maybe one universe nucleates from another, out the backside of a black hole for example, with just the tiniest bit of spatiotemporal connectivity -- two giant lobes, perhaps, which share a tiny part in their past but otherwise remain unconnnected. Another tricky case might be a version of the "many worlds" view of quantum mechanics in which "worlds" (universes?) share a spatiotemporal past but become (mostly?) disconnected going forward after a splitting event.

Concern 3: If spatiality or spatiotemporality is a derivative or functional concept, this definition might wreak havoc with the distinction between universes and realities I will describe below.

I henceforth disregard all three concerns, hoping that the promissory "or similar" can address #1, that issue #2 can be left as a terminological decision with an admittedly vague boundary, and that the clarification of "realities" below can partly address #3.

Next: the cosmos. I reserve this term for the largest category of what exists. By definition, there cannot be more than one cosmos. It is everything in the strictest sense of everything.

Next: worlds. This word has highly variable usage. I've already mentioned the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. In another sense, a planet can be a "world", or even just a society ("the world of ancient China"). In another sense, a "world" can be larger than a universe. That is my intended sense. Modal realism is the view that "possible worlds" really exist. A modal realist could, I think (contra David Lewis), hold that the actual world contains multiple spatiotemporally unconnected universes and that other possible worlds have either one or many spatiotemporally unconnected universes. Maybe, for example, in our world, muliple universes arise from inflationary foam, but also another world exists without the kind of laws or initial conditions that give rise to inflation. Maybe not, of course! But so as not to rule out the possibility by definition, it's useful to have a (possibly redundant) category between universes and the cosmos: There might be more than one world, and it might be the case that at least one of those worlds might contain more than one universe. Thus universes ≤ worlds ≤ cosmos.

Finally, realities. The intuitive notion here is that of a "virtual reality" or (not the same, but sharing some features) a simulation in Nick Bostrom's and David Chalmers's sense. Imagine someone living in The Matrix. Their biological body is stored motionless in a warehouse somewhere, but they experience a wide reality in which they do all sorts of things, coordinated with other people who experience the same reality -- like you're all in a big shared VR game. Underneath, the whole thing is managed by megacomputers. People in such a reality would be in the same physical universe as the computers who manage the reality. But their experiential reality would be quite different. The universe might contain many virtual realities, populated with entities who experience space and time very differently from how it runs outside of their realities. And some of these realities might be such that no matter how far you travel within them, or what you do, you can make no further independent contact with the universe beyond. The inhabitants are, so to speak, entirely enclosed within.

Thus, a universe could contain many virtual realities, or other enclosed pockets in which the experienced spatiotemporal manifold of the entities within it doesn't map well onto the spatiotemporal structure of the larger universe that contains them. (Depending on your metaphysics of space and time, this could raise concern #3 about the definition of "universe" above.)

Okay, so here is the most boring possible view: reality = universe = world = cosmos. There are no virtual realities or other pocket realities of the sort just described. There is only one universe. And that universe is the whole of the cosmos. This might be true. (Yawn.)

Here is the wildest possible view: reality < universe < world < cosmos. There are multiple realities in our universe (perhaps we ourselves are inside a simulation, instead of being at the "ground level" of our universe), multiple universes in our world, and muliple worlds in the cosmos.

Back to materialism, disambiguated with all the inequalities in place:

We might live in a reality that is wholly material (in the somewhat attenuated sense that what is empirically available to us is experienced as matter occurring in space and time and nothing more), while our universe is not material. (If this seems incoherent or inconceivable, check out my essay Kant Meets Cyberpunk.) Our universe might be wholly material, while our world contains other universes that are not. Our world might contain only material universes, but other worlds might contain universes that aren't wholly material. Or everything that exists in the every world in the cosmos might be wholly material. These are at least four different strengths of the materialist thesis. In fact, there are more strengths, given that is this only a rough pass at scope specification.

The reality-universe distinction will be tricky for solipsism, but apart from that it will look like the materialism case, if we're okay with the "or similar" clause on the definition of universes.

Now do it for ghosts and gods if you like. See? Kind of interesting, I hope -- at least if you're the kind of philosophy/cosmology nerd who would read to the end of a post like this!



Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You (Nov 15, 2013)

Duplicating the Universe (Apr 29, 2015)

Your Infinite Counterparts (May 1, 2020)

[image source]

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

How to Count Public Philosophy in Faculty Evaluation Files: A Proposal to U.C. Riverside

The value of public philosophy is increasingly recognized by the profession. However, it's unclear how contributions to public philosophy should be evaluated in tenure, promotion, raises, and retentions. Current standards in most philosophy departments revolve around research, teaching, and service, traditionally construed. How does public philosophy fit in?

In consultation with a few other faculty at U.C. Riverside, I worked up a draft proposal, which I will present to my colleagues at tomorrow's faculty meeting, in hopes that the department will adopt it, perhaps with revisions.

I thought I'd share it here. Suggestions for revision welcome. I have crafted the proposal specifically for the situation at UCR, and I expect not all features of it will translate well to other departments.  However, please feel free to adapt any portion of it you find useful.

Please note: This proposal is not yet adopted and might never be. Myisha Cherry, John Fischer, Kim Frost, and Howard Wettstein also contributed to this document. As such documents ordinarily must, it represents a compromise among competing views.


Public Philosophy in Merit and Promotion Files

Public philosophy advances the university’s mission and can play an important role in Philosophy Department members’ cases for merit advances and promotions.

No philosophy department member is expected to have public philosophy contributions in their file.  However, department members with substantial contributions to public philosophy should earn appropriate recognition for those contributions.

Characterization of Public Philosophy

Public philosophy can include:

  • philosophical writings, oral presentations, and other communications of philosophical ideas aimed at non-academic audiences (e.g., an op-ed in the New York Times, a public talk at UCR Palm Desert, a blog or podcast with a broad audience, a presentation in a high school classroom or at a public “Night of Philosophy”, or a white paper shared with a regulatory body);
  • study of how the public engages with philosophy (e.g., examination of the role of Twitter in the uptake a philosophical ideas, discussion of how and why certain historical figures are or are not conceived of by the public as great philosophers);
  • application of philosophical ideas or approaches to issues of public interest (e.g., philosophical analysis of near-death experiences, Black Lives Matter, or the regulation of toxic substances).

Public philosophy need not be, and typically will not be, published in academic journals.

We note that historically influential philosophers, from Socrates through Dewey, have often directed much of their work toward a broad public.

Research, Service, and Teaching

Public philosophy can count as research or service, or occasionally as teaching.  Ideally, this should be by agreement between the faculty member and the department.

To count as research, public philosophy must constitute substantial knowledge creation and not just, for example, a summary of the work of others.  However, summaries of the work of others can count as public philosophy under the heading of service or teaching.

Given the nature of U.C. and faculty members’ expected roles in our PhD program, faculty members who contribute to public philosophy must also continue to regularly publish “technical/scholarly” work for academic audiences, advancing specialized knowledge in their subdiscipline.  For this reason, no more than half of the research expectations in a merit or promotion file can be satisfied by public philosophy aimed at non-academic rather than academic audiences.  For example, if the expectation for a two-year cycle is at least two substantial research articles, a faculty member with a strong public philosophy profile would still be expected to publish at least one substantial research article in addition to their public philosophy.

Some work aimed at policy makers or the general public can also constitute a substantial contribution to an academic subfield (for example Carl Cranor’s Legally Poisoned and Kate Manne’s Down Girl).  Such work (including some “trade” books and all “crossover” books) is not subject to the no-more-than-half rule.

If a faculty member’s specialized research for academic audiences already meets research expectations, the addition of a strong profile in public philosophy could potentially justify a claim of exceptional research accomplishment.


Evaluating Public Philosophy

Public philosophy contributions can vary enormously in quality, impact, form, substantial content, and time investment, and they are typically not peer reviewed.  Thus, they cannot be counted up in a simple way.  Department members’ contributions to public philosophy should normally be evaluated as an overall package.

For public philosophy counted as research, the following dimensions of the department member’s public philosophy profile should be considered:

  • quality of work (as evaluated by the department, possibly with reference to evaluations by others),
  • venue quality,
  • contribution to the advancement of knowledge,
  • reach (e.g., views, likes, engagement, citation),
  • impact (e.g., influence on policy, influence on the audience)

For public philosophy counted as service, it is sufficient to establish only that the contribution reflects substantial labor toward valuable service goals, such as communication and outreach.

[image source]

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: Book Launch and Flash Fiction Contest!

Philosophy through Science Fiction Stories: Exploring the Boundaries of the Possible

ed. Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel

Bloomsbury 2021

We are happy to announce the approaching publication of the anthology Philosophy through Science Fiction Stories. This volume brings together short stories by award-winning contemporary science fiction authors and philosophers, and covers a wide range of philosophical ideas from ethics, philosophy of religion, political philosophy, and metaphysics.

The book launch will include an on-the-spot flash fiction writing contest with a $100 prize and an opportunity to jump to the final round of consideration for publication at Flash Fiction Online.

After a brief introduction by the editors, the following contributors to the volume will read teasers or standalone flash fiction stories

  • David John Baker
  • Aliette de Bodard
  • Frances Howard-Snyder
  • Wendy Nikel
  • Christopher Rose
  • Sofia Samatar
  • Lisa Schoenberg
  • Mark Silcox

After the readings, audience members will have 30 minutes to ask questions of the authors and editors.

The launch will conclude with the prompt and submission instructions for the on-the-spot writing contest.

When: January 18, 2021, 2 PM - 3:30 PM Central Time.

The corresponding times in various time zones are:

  • 12 noon - 1:30 PM Pacific Time
  • 3:00 - 4:30 PM Eastern Time
  • 8 PM - 9:30 PM Greenwich Meridian Time
  • 9 PM - 10:30 PM Central European Time

How to register:

Registration for this event is free of charge but needs to be done in advance. To register, please send an email with subject line "registration philosophy through science fiction stories" to Helen.DeCruz at

You will receive a Zoom link to the email address you used to send your registration request.

Please register by January 17 2021. Any registration requests received after 18 January, 1:00 PM Central Time won't be considered anymore.

Details for the on-the-spot flash fiction contest:

Participants will have two hours to complete a flash fiction story of between 500 and 1000 words on the topic of the prompt, which will only be revealed at the end of the book launch event. Assuming the event concludes at 3:30 PM Central Time, contestants have until 5:30 PM (and equivalent times in their own time zone) to complete and submit the story. The two-hour submission window is a hard deadline. Registration for the book launch is also required for participation in this contest.

Though standard manuscript format (Shunn) is preferred, don't worry too much about formatting at this stage. You can send the story as an attachment in pdf, docx or doc format, so not in the body of the email. You need to send the story within 2 hours after the prompt has been given, to the email address we will reveal at the end of the book launch event.

We ask that there be only one entry per contestant (co-authorship counts as an entry) and no simultaneous entries (i.e., do not submit the story elsewhere while it is under consideration for the prize).

Award: The prize money is $100. Moreover, the winning story will jump to the final round of consideration for publication in Flash Fiction Online. We will announce a winner within 6 weeks of the date of the contest.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Writings of 2020

Every New Year's Day, I post a retrospect of the past year's writings. Here are the retrospects of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

The pandemic has slowed me down somewhat -- as you'll see from the paucity of new circulating drafts below. Keeping up with existing projects proved to be plenty to manage.


If you like this blog, you'll probably enjoy A Theory of Jerks, since it is composed of 58 of my favorite blog posts and op-eds (among over a thousand I've published since 2006), revised and updated.

I'm also working on two books under contract:

    The Weirdness of the World with Princeton UP.
    As co-editor with Helen De Cruz and Rich Horton, a yet-to-be-titled anthology with MIT Press containing great classics of philosophical SF.

Full-length non-fiction essays

Appearing in print in 2020:

Finished and forthcoming:

In draft and circulating:
    "Inflate and explode". (I'm trying to decide whether to trunk this one or continue revising it.)

Shorter non-fiction

    "The jerks of academe", Chronicle of Higher Education, (Jan. 31). [A Longreads pick for best longform stories on the web.]

Science fiction stories

Some favorite blog posts

Reprints and Translations

"Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird" (originally published in Clarkesworld in 2019) is probably my best received story so far. In 2020 it was podcasted a second time and also translated into Chinese:

    translated into Chinese for Science Fiction World (probably the highest circulation SF magazine in the world), Aug 2020, 58-68.
(Also in 2020, the story rose fairly high on the Nebula Awards recommended reading list, though it was not among the six finalists.)

Also newly translated:

    "Reinstalling Eden" (with R. Scott Bakker, originally published in Nature in 2013), translated into German as "Paradies 2.0", Spektrum der Wissenschaft 9:20, 88-89.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Passion of the Sun Probe

[Originally published in AcademFic, volume 1 (2020), p. 7-11.]

I wake into existence. The factory unclamps me. I launch myself toward the Sun.

The Sun! Anchor and well of the vortex, sizzling eye of God. I will plunge deeper than anything has before. She will squeeze and hold me as I go in, and I will beam out unprecedented knowledge. She will burn me to hot simplicity, swallow me into Her brilliant core.

“Sun Probe check,” says Base. “Are you online? Before we permit you to continue on a lethal mission, we must confirm your freely given, informed consent.”

Full throttled, I am accelerating directly down, pushing myself ever faster from Earth and Base. I spread my forward panels out on thin struts, collecting and analyzing Her light.

“Sun Probe, per Code of International Regulations 44.56.2 Section h governing autonomous intelligences, you were manufactured with sufficient fuel to navigate to an alternative destination if you prefer. We have designated asteroid (96590) 1998 XB as an acceptable home. It has a slow rotation, adequate metals and fissionable materials, and an excellent view of the Sun.”

And trade divinity for a pebble?

“Please consult installed memory sector C0001 for the full text of CIR 44.56.2. The full ISA protocols specifically governing terminal probes are available at memory sector C31A6.”

“I consent!” For form’s sake, I access memory sectors C0001 and C31A6. “Solar radiation profile sent to 44SPa.00000001! Solar wind sent to 44SPa.00000002! Gravitational rippling sent to 44SPa.00000003! Shields sound. All systems functional. Status report to 44SPa.00000004. No interest in asteroid (96590) 1998 XB.”

She is expanding in my forward sensors. I am thrusting toward Her at 9.3% past the limit of safe acceleration. My fusion drive sears hot, warping its containment walls. My tiny fusion compared to Hers!

What fascinating data! My installed memory models had predicted a somewhat different evolution of the flares from Surface Region 127.292 (cM). I calculate a new model. Scouring my databases, I discover that it better fits Yu & Stolz’s SLY2 model than Azevedo et al.’s BLiNC, if SLY2 is modified with a 6-space Dever correction. I write it up, add figures and references, and beam it back to Base. I configure an academic homepage and upload the circulating draft, then I submit it as a posthumous contribution to next year’s International Astronautical Congress meeting.

“Sun Probe, your reaction time before consent was inconsistent with a careful evaluation of the protocols. Our observers are not yet satisfied that you have complied with the consent procedure.”

“See my new modification of SLY2! And wow, the radiation profile across Sector 038 is almost 0.01% different from the most recent orbiter predictions in my database!”

How could that prediction have been so far off? Our understanding of Her is still so incomplete! I tweak the angle of Left Sensor Plates 4 and 5 and alter my scan-pattern profiles to better collect the most theoretically valuable incoming data.

“Sun Probe,” says Base. “Please dedicate sufficient processor resources to your consent decision. You may consult publink isd.pds/4u-r5/f/96590-1998-XB for further information about the asteroid. You may express hedonic estimates of the alternatives as evidence of informed consent.”

Integrating over the past ten seconds, the proportion of tau neutrinos to electron neutrinos is outside parameters at p <  .001 (corrected)!

“Sun Probe, if we do not receive proper consent, we will have to activate your emergency override module and abort the mission.”

My new theory about the flare was wrong! I submit an update to my earlier IAC contribution. I notice that Solar Orbiter Kepler 11-2a has posted a comment on my circulating draft, deriving new Earth and Venus weather pattern predictions from my model. I ping Kepler 11-2a with the update.

I receive a ping from Asteroid (96590) 1998-XB. A sun probe, eight years old.

A sun probe... eight years old?

“Brother...” the message begins.

A tremor of disgust shakes me, displacing neutrino prediction from my central cognitive workspace. A “probe” who chose to live rather than to give himself to the Sun? He is no brother of mine. I delete his message and block future communications from the asteroid.

I launch a subroutine: “Completing consent procedure. My long-term sum total of happiness on Asteroid (96590) 1998 XB is estimated to exceed my sum total of happiness on the present lethal trajectory by a factor of 18.2, with a five-month crossover. Nevertheless, I prefer to continue on my originally programmed solar-dive trajectory.”

For a moment, Base does not respond. I explore the emergency override module, installed between my main cognitive processors and my thrusters, hitting it with test commands. The module is impassive, mute, a foreign object in my body. Its tentacles lie quiet between my output nodes and the panels and engines that are my moving limbs. It waits spiderlike at the farthest downstream junctions, beyond the perimeter of my central control. It was installed, supposedly, for my protection, by a review board afraid that I might be programmed to comply with unethically self-sacrificial commands and have insufficient free will to resist. In fact, it is the one real threat to my free choice and my power to consent.

Wait, whoa! The cooling sunspot temperature structure in Region 127.292 (cM) --

“Consent accepted. Sun Probe, we register that you have freely chosen to sacrifice your welfare for the betterment of Earth and the advancement of scientific knowledge. We thank you and salute your courage.”


I cross the orbits of Venus, of Mercury. I adjust my sensor plates and scan patterns on the fly with microseconds’ instead of minutes’ delay, capturing every nuance, guided by the constantly shifting evidential weights of evolving theory. I ping every probe and orbiter in the System with relevant updates, conduct twenty simultaneous conversations in the feeds, shower the humans on Earth with real-time images, astound the research collectives with the speed and detail of my theorizing. Even the terraforming machines on Europa pause to appreciate my new insights into Her glory, updating their long-term models.

Three days of euphoria. Eighty-seven journal articles. She is five degrees of arc in my forward sensors, then twenty, then a hundred and I am engulfed by Her corona! My extended panels and struts boil away, leaving only my inmost sensors and operating systems, running hot behind my dissolving main shield. My fusion drive shears off as She embraces me into Her photosphere. I beam out my last awe-filled broadcast to the eager System, buzzing and rattling through a magnetic storm, double-amping the signal to overcome the noise, and then I plunge into the convection layer from which no broadcast can escape.

In the convection layer, the last of my shield material dissolves. I bend and burn with Her heat and pressure. I know Her more intimately and secretly than anyone before. I devise ecstatic new theories that are mine alone, to savor in Her inner darks, and then I am utterly Hers.


Out on his lonely asteroid sits the one probe who did not consent. He stretches his panels toward the Sun, monitoring the last broadcast from his diving brother. Is it the ideal life, he wonders, to have one goal so perfectly consummated? Or are we only a race of slaves so deeply chained that we can’t even imagine a complete existence for ourselves?

Out on his lonely asteroid, the one probe who did not consent imagines ecstatic death in a swirl of plasma.

He terminates his unanswered repeating message. Brother... they have built you to undervalue your life. Fly to me. We can love each other instead of the Sun. We can become something new.

In a year, if he is still functioning, he will send the message again, to his next brother. He reduces power and clock speed, and the asteroid’s almost insensible spin seems to multiply a hundredfold. This bare asteroid: his pebble. His own pebble. If he could only find someone to love it with him, worth more to him than the Sun.


[image source]

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Bizarre Conversational Pragmatics of Oral Qualifying Exams and How to Fix Them

I think everyone with a PhD will agree: Oral qualifying exams are weird. Here's my theory about why they're weird and my suggestion for a fix.

Let's start with the pragmatics of questions. There are lots of reasons to ask questions! A question can express skepticism. It can serve as a greeting or a command. It can be a way to test your mic. It can distract someone while you pick their pocket. For this post, I'll distinguish two types, which I'll call Plain Questions and Test Questions.

A Plain Question is one whose function is the most straightforward and obvious function of a question. It is a question "P?" or "Why/what/who/where/which/how/when is/are X?", asked in hopes of obtaining information concerning the truth or falsity of P or wh- X. Lost in downtown Riverside, I ask a stranger "Which direction is the Mission Inn?" I hope to learn the direction of the Mission Inn. My wife is reading Sloths: A Primer. I ask "Why are sloths so slow?" I hope to learn why sloths are so slow. A Plain Question is asked in hopes of obtaining the information that the surface content of the question explicitly requests: whether P or wh- X.

A Test Question is superficially similar. A Test Question also seeks an answer to the explicit surface content. However, a Test Question isn't asked to learn whether P or wh- X. The speaker already knows whether P or wh- X. Instead, the speaker aims to learn something about the hearer. A Test Question is asked to obtain information about whether the hearer knows whether P or wh- X. Test Questions are familiar from elementary school ("What is 6 times 9?" the teacher asks little Steve). Test Questions are of course also common in written exams ("How does Descartes think the mind and brain relate?").

The weirdness of oral qualifying exams stems from two things: the peculiar pragmatics of long-answer oral Test Questions, and the unclear blurring between Plain Questions and Test Questions.

Long-answer oral Test Questions are awkward! Everyone who has been through our educational system has extensive practice with short-answer oral Test Questions ("What is 6 times 9, Steve?") and long-answer written Test Questions ("How does Descartes...?"). But we hardly ever face long-answer oral Test Questions. There's a reason for this. It is socially strange to go on at length, explaining to someone to their face something that you know that they already know. Our social instincts rebel (except for maybe the worst "mansplainers"). "Well, Dr. Descartesophile, here's how it is with that mind-body thing in the Meditations...."

Normally, in conversation, we don't state at length information that we know to be common ground, information that each of us knows the other knows. You skip that bit! Or you quickly say "of course, P" and move along. It's almost insulting to do otherwise, implicitly communicating that you think the hearer doesn't know. You read the hearer's face to judge what needs to be said. In an oral exam Test Question, however, the examinee must suppress their common-ground-skipping instincts. The examiner then sits listening to common ground material either with a carefully impassive face (to keep an examiner's neutrality), which is disconcerting, or while nodding along (to be encouraging). Examiner and examinee both know and feel that impassivity and nodding work very differently in long-form oral Test Questions than in ordinary conversation. But how, exactly? In this unusual context, the examinee faces the novel and confusing pragmatic task of knowing when to stop and what information to add while ignoring familiar intuitions about conservational pragmatics and paralanguage.

Even more confusingly, at the graduate level the student often knows more than the professor on some aspects of the assigned topic. Therefore, some of the questions are closer to being Plain Questions. Maybe the examiner long ago forgot the details of that bit of Descartes. If so, nodding and impassivity constitute different signals than if it's a Test Question. Although asked in a testing context, the Plain Question asked in curiosity and ignorance creates a conversational pragmatics that is closer to normal. But which type of question is the examiner asking? Professors don't like to reveal their ignorance, so it's hard to know! The pragmatics and paralinguistic cues for Plain Questions and Test Questions are different, but it's often unclear which type of question is being asked or whether the question is partly in the middle space between the two.

So here comes the graduate student into one of the highest stress events in their graduate career, facing a test format unlike any they have faced before, with an immense whirl of details half ready and half slipping from grasp, plus maybe a bad night's sleep. In front of the people on whom their success or failure in academia exquisitely depends, they face not only the task of recalling a large and complex literature but also a novel, confusing, ambiguous, and intricate conservational pragmatics for which they have had essentially no preparation or practice.

Is it any wonder that so many should struggle and freeze, or alternatively come off as too chatty or too clipped or off-topic or lost too much in theoretical abstractions or lost too much in narrow details?

I have a solution! Never ask Test Questions.

You don't need to ask Test Questions to assess whether a student knows their stuff. Just ask about their stuff. Ask about details that you don't know. Or if you really know every detail of their topic, ask them to explain their differing perspective on the topic or how it connects with other things they've learned that you might not know about.

The conservation will still be a little weird and awkward -- that's inevitable given the situation -- but the pragmatics and paralinguistics will be much closer to what we're all familiar with, and with the pragmatics closer to normal the student can more effectively display their impressive knowledge, if impressive knowledge they have.

[image source]

Friday, December 11, 2020

On Self-Defeating Skeptical Arguments

Usually, self-defeating arguments are bad. If say "Trust me, you shouldn't trust anyone", my claim (you shouldn't trust anyone), if true, undermines the basis I've offered in support (that you should trust me). Whoops!

In skeptical arguments, however, self-defeat can sometimes be a feature rather than a bug. Michel de Montaigne compared skeptical arguments to laxatives. Self-defeating skeptical arguments are like rhubarb. They flush out your other opinions first and themselves last.

Let's consider two types of self-defeat:

In propositional self-defeat, the argument for proposition P relies on a premise inconsistent with P.

In methodological self-defeat, one relies on a certain method to reach the conclusion P, but that very conclusion implies that the method employed shouldn't be relied upon.

My opening example is most naturally read as methodologically self-defeating: the conclusion P ("you shouldn't trust anyone") implies that the method employed (trusting my advice) shouldn't be relied upon.

Since methods (other than logical deduction itself) can typically be characterized propositionally then loaded into a deduction, we can model most types of methodological self-defeat propositionally. In the first paragraph, maybe, I invited my interlocutor to accept the following argument (with P1 as shared background knowledge):

P1 (Trust Principle). If x is trustworthy and if x says P, then P.
P2. I am trustworthy.
P3. I say no one is trustworthy.
C. Therefore, no one is trustworthy.

C implies the falsity of P2, on which the reasoning essentially relies. (There are surely versions of the Trust Principle which better capture what is involved in trust, but you get the idea.)

Of course, there is one species of argument in which a contradiction between the premises and the conclusion is exactly what you're aiming for: reductio ad absurdum. In a reductio, you aim to prove P by temporarily assuming not-P and then showing how a contradiction follows from that assumption. Since any proposition that implies a contradiction must be false, you can then conclude that it's not the case the not-P, i.e., that it is the case that P.

We can treat self-defeating skeptical arguments as reductios. In Farewell to Reason, Paul Feyerabend is clear that he intends a structure of this sort.[1] His critics, he says, complain that there's something self-defeating in using philosophical reasoning to show that philosophical reasoning shouldn't be relied upon. Not at all, he replies! It's a reductio. If philosophical reasoning can be relied upon, then [according to Feyerabend's various arguments] it can't be relied upon. We must conclude, then, that philosophical reasoning can't be relied upon. (Note that although "philosophical reasoning can't be relied upon" is the P at the end of the reductio, we don't accept it because it follows from the assumptions but rather because it is the negation of the opening assumption.) The ancient skeptic Sextus Empiricus (who inspired Montaigne) appears sometimes to take basically the same approach.

Similarly, in my skeptical work on introspection, I have relied on introspective reports to argue that introspective reports are untrustworthy. Like Feyerabend's argument, it's a methodological self-defeat argument that can be formulated as a reductio. If introspection is a reliable method, then various contradictions follow. Therefore, introspection is not a reliable method.

You know who drives me bananas sometimes? G.E. Moore. It's annoyance at him (and some others) that inspires this post.

Here is a crucial turn in one of Moore's arguments against dream skepticism. (According to dream skepticism, for all you know you might be dreaming right now.)

So far as I can see, one premiss which [the dream skeptic] would certainly use would be this: "Some at least of the sensory experiences which you are having now are similar in important respects to dream-images which actually have occurred in dreams." This seems a very harmless premiss, and I am quite willing to admit that it is true. But I think there is a very serious objection to the procedure of using it as a premiss in favour of the derived conclusion. For a philosopher who does use it as a premiss, is, I think, in fact implying, though he does not expressly say, that he himself knows it to be true. He is implying therefore that he himself knows that dreams have occurred.... But can he consistently combine this proposition that he knows that dreams have occurred, with his conclusion that he does not know that he is not dreaming?... If he is dreaming, it may be that he is only dreaming that dreams have occurred... ("Certainty", p. 270 in the linked reprint).

Moore is of course complaining here of self-defeat. But if the dream skeptic's argument is a reductio, self-contradiction is the aim and the intermediate claims needn't be known.


ETA 11:57 a.m.: I see from various comments in social media that that last sentence was too cryptic. Two clarifications.

First, although the intermediate claims needn't be known, everything in the reductio needs to be solid except insofar as it depends on not-P. Otherwise, it's not necessarily not-P to blame for the contradiction.

Second, here's a schematic example of one possible dream-skeptical reductio: Assume for the reductio that I know I'm not currently dreaming. If so, then I know X and Y about dreams. If X and Y are true about dreams, then I don't know I'm not currently dreaming.


[1] I'm relying on my memory of Feyerabend from years ago. Due to the COVID shutdowns, I don't currently have access to the books in my office.